Politics of Ecosystem Management in the Great Lakes Basin

By Rabe, Barry G. | American Review of Canadian Studies, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Politics of Ecosystem Management in the Great Lakes Basin


Rabe, Barry G., American Review of Canadian Studies


The Great Lakes Basin may constitute the ultimate test of a North American region's capacity to foster environmental protection across a vast and complex ecosystem. Covering a surface area of over three hundred thousand square miles, the Basin holds one-fourth of the world's freshwater supply and is the only glacial feature on the earth's surface that is visible from the moon. The challenge of forging environmentally viable strategies for the Basin stems not only from its imposing physical scope but also from the intense concentration of population and industrial activity within its boundaries for more than a century. One-third of the entire population of Canada resides, and nearly three-quarters of all Canadian manufacturing occurs, within the Basin. In turn, one in seven Americans lives in the Basin and manufacturing remains a staple of the economy. Virtually all standard measures of toxic pollutants and hazard-ous wastes generated in both nations concur that provinces and states in the Basin are national leaders in the volumes of such contaminants generated and released.

About three decades ago, the environmental viability of the Basin began to be seen as highly jeopardized. The seeming ecological demise of Lake Erie, a series of blazes along waterways such as the Cuyahoga River, and mounting evidence that other lakes (particularly Michigan and Ontario) were seriously threatened served to trigger considerable debate over whether ecological health could be regained or if the Basin was trapped in an irreversible downhill slide. In addition to conventional contamination threats, the Basin also appears particularly vulnerable to the effects of cross-media pollution. Large surface waters, long residence time for water before it circulates out of the Basin, and prevailing air currents make all five lakes vulnerable to air deposition. More than one thousand organic compounds and heavy metals are detectable in all five lakes of the Basin, with air the only conceivable source in numerous instances (Colborn 1990). Other pervasive sources of cross-media pollutant transfer that often defy jurisdictional boundaries and threaten the Basin include groundwater discharge, landfill leaching, pesticide and topsoil runoff from agricultural activity and residential development, and release from contaminated lake-bottom sediments.

The daunting scope of such problems has served to focus growing interest on ways to begin to view the Basin as a unified ecosystem and to promote longterm viability. A flurry of collective activity at multiple levels of government has occurred in the Basin over the past quarter-century, much of it linked by the common goal of comprehensive Basin protection. Some outright improvements in Basin environmental quality have been registered, most notably in nutrients such as phosphorus, but also in some areas of toxic release and contamination involving all media. Stabilization of environmental quality appears to have occurred in other areas, despite continued growth of population and industrial activity. Virtually every unit of government in the Basin has played some role in this process. While very loosely coordinated, these numerous strategies and programmatic efforts have contributed to an unprecedented degree of unity and common vision for the Basin as a collective whole.

This evolution defies, in many respects, the conventional depictions of how regional ecosystems are most likely to be protected. On the one hand, many analysts contend that only central, hegemonic oversight can be relied upon to secure the consent of multiple stakeholders in protection of common resources. Drawing on Garrett Hardin's classic work on the plundering of the commons, Robert Heilbroner, William Ophuls, A. Stephen Boyan, Jr., and others have offered forceful assertions that only strong, top-down authority can foster longterm ecological viability (Ophuls and Boyan 1992). In the Great Lakes, periodic proposals for comprehensive regional "superagencies" with vast powers over development and environmental regulation have followed such lines of analysis. …

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